by Tony Hansen
The history of cinema is littered with severed penises. "In the Realm of the Senses" has one. So does "Killer Condom." Of course, "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" refers to one. And, some have even said that there’s one in "The Wizard of Oz" – but you have to look carefully. This may be an apocryphal story that I made up, but it’s also been noted that Orson Welles put one in his original cut of "The Magnificent Ambersons." Unfortunately for the genius’s vision, the studio left the severed penis on the cutting room floor.Teeth, Mitchell Lichtenstein’s pulpy and goofy female empowerment film, takes cinema’s severed penis motif and dares to ask the question, “Hey, what about the vagina?” Then, employing the cautionary tale of vagina dentata, Lichtenstein joins both worlds into a throwback monster film full of sex, gore, and even a bit of Jesus. It’s a tried and true formula that leads to a hilarious, uncomfortable, and frightening movie watching experience.
"You’ll go ‘ugggghhh’ when the ‘hoo-ha’ bites off the ‘nyuk-nyuk.’"
For those of you who are unfamiliar with vagina dentata lore, the phrase translates from Latin to mean, “toothed vagina,” which itself translates into our current vernacular to mean, “holy shit!” A myth stemming from fears of castration, vagina dentata is meant to scare the pants back onto any philandering or overly sexually active man. In Teeth, the vagina in question belongs to Dawn (Jess Weixler), a modest and chaste girl living among a sea of hormones. Dawn has many suitors. Some are wolves in sheep’s clothing, like Dawn’s friend-in-Christianity, Tobey (Hale Appleman), a well-intentioned virtuous young man who is overcome by his sexual impulses. Others are just wolves, like Dawn’s stepbrother, Brad (John Hensley), an over-sexed misogynistic hedonist. These negative male influences manipulate and force the innocent Dawn to have sex, so she decides to take matters into her own hands or, perhaps better stated, into her own . . . whatever.
Overall, the men of Teeth are manipulative and malevolent creeps. Save Dawn’s stepfather (Lenny von Dohlen), literally, every single man in the film has some sort of sexualized ulterior motive. There’s even a gynecologist who attempts to molest Dawn. Of course, Dawn makes these men pay. And the price is their penises. With a quick bite, Dawn removes these men’s cocky swagger. Because of this violence and the resulting seemingly anti-male message of the film, it’s tempting to call Teeth misandristic. After all, films, which detail the exploits of male serial killers, are often decried for being misogynistic. And, although Dawn may be portrayed as a sort of female superhero, Teeth is simply a serial killer movie turned upside-down. The truth is that the men of Teeth shouldn’t have penises. Maybe that seems too touchy-feely or didactic, but it’s true. The clear message of the film is that dreadful men don’t deserve dicks. And because Dawn’s stepfather represents a “normal” and “good” man, Teeth averts assertions of misandry. There are good men, Teeth says, and there are bad men. And those bad men aren’t worthy to be men.
This message is also present in the aforementioned Killer Condom, and the comparison to that film is interesting because Teeth is essentially a Troma film, albeit one that has subtext, an interesting plot, understandable mis-en-scene, logical editing, good acting, and an overall feeling that the producers actually valued the production. Fundamentally, it is like a Troma film because it simply feels like a Troma film. It’s the type of good film that Troma would produce or distribute if Troma actually produced or distributed good films. And, ultimately, this is an excellent thing because it exemplifies Lichtenstein’s desire to make something different. The truth is that just as Troma films have a sort of quirky iconoclastic charm, so too does Teeth typify the spirit of individuality.
Today is a good time to be a cineaste. Films are, for the most part, better than they were twenty years ago. But today isn’t perfect. Doing a wrap-up of the films of 1944, noted film critic James Agee ended his article with this admonition: “When an art is in good health, mediocrity and amorphous energy and commercialism and hostility toward disinterested men become more than forgivable, as lubricants and as stimulants, and the men of skill, or of affable or gentle or charming or for that matter venal talent, are more than welcome to exist, and to be liked and rewarded. When an art is sick unto death, only men of the most murderous creative passion can hope to save it. In either condition it is generally, if by no means always, this dangerous sort of man who does the great work.” Agee finishes his statement by questioning whether or not it’s possible for such talent to work in film, and he certainly doesn’t believe that it could happen here in America.
To be sure, there is banal and mediocre talent in film today. But there are also those who do things differently. Cinema is not sick. And to its credit, Lichtenstein’s cut penis picture takes chances with what is acceptable in society and art. It dares to show females as sexual predators. It dares to show body parts that are deemed unacceptable by the ratings’ board. And, of course, it dares to make every man squirm.Although the film is far from perfect (much of the humor is oriented around cheap laughs) and Lichtenstein isn’t the most “dangerous man” imaginable, the sum of "Teeth’s" ideas and attitudes overreach the film itself. Ultimately, while the men of "Teeth" may not keep their penises, "Teeth," itself, has balls.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=15721&reviewer=421
originally posted: 08/24/07 14:55:40